06/27/2002

FBI and Spanish Police Join Forces in a Hollywood-Style Recovery of Stolen Art

by Mar Roman, Associated Press

MADRID, Spain (AP) - It had the hallmarks of a Hollywood plot: a high-stakes art robbery. An elaborate sting in a glitzy hotel with cops disguised as art connoisseurs. And finally, the recovery of several million-dollar paintings.

One of the biggest art heists in Spanish history ended with three arrests and the discovery of 10 of 19 stolen masterpieces - including paintings by Goya, Pisarro and Foujita - in a trap on Friday organized by Spanish police and the FBI.

The artworks were stolen from the apartment of Spanish construction tycoon Esther Koplowitz on Aug. 8 while she was on vacation.

The thieves were caught after an undercover FBI agent playing the role of an art expert and a Spanish agent posing as a potential buyer arranged a rendezvous with them in the four-star Melia Castilla hotel in Madrid.

The agents were offering $970,000 to buy Pieter Brueghel's "The Temptation of St. Anthony" in a meeting monitored closely by some 100 police officers posing as hotel employees, beggars and garbage collectors.

The encounter ended as though it had been scripted.

Two people were arrested, a third surrendered to police and nine other canvases were found in the trunk of a car. They included "The Swing" and "The Donkey's Fall" by Goya, Tsuguharu Foujita's "Child with Hat" and Camille Pissarro's "Landscape at Eragny" - all paintings worth millions of dollars.

Nine paintings and some archaeological artifacts remain missing.

"The operation will remain open until all the paintings are found, " said Spain's police chief, Juan Cotino.

The guard at Koplowitz's apartment, Luis Miguel de Mazo, initially told police the thieves beat him, tied him up and blindfolded him before stealing the art.

But a telephone tap revealed conversations between De Mazo and two other men about the robbery and discussions about how to dispose of the haul.

The FBI became involved after Spanish police learned the robbers were trying to sell the paintings to a U.S. buyer and asked for the U.S. agency's help. The Spaniards wanted an FBI art expert to pose as the buyer.

The investigation quickly centered on Angel Suarez, a convicted criminal with a history of bank robberies. Suarez, 43, and Juan Manuel Candela, 38, offered the paintings for sale to the undercover agents.

Candela was arrested almost immediately after showing the Brueghel painting to the FBI agent, who had been trained in art authentication. Suarez was detained in the hotel lobby minutes later.

De Mazo surrendered after learning of the arrests and told police he had given the thieves a detailed description of Koplowitz's apartment.

A robbery charge carries a maximum sentence of five years imprisonment.

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